(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Much-ballyhooed as a more ambitious kind of Netflix original project (as in: a major director’s film approved and financed by Netflix rather than them buying the distribution rights of an independent production), Okja also represents the latest in Bong Joon-ho’s typically scattershot blend of comedy, action, drama, horror and irony. Decently budgeted, Okja presupposes the existence of genetically modified super-pigs, leading to animal activists trying to prevent their exploitation by a heartless corporation. Obviously, Okja‘s anti-animal abuse themes are often undistinguishable from a recognizable vegan agenda, but don’t let that stop you from sampling what it has to offer. Okja itself is an often-delightful CGI creation, a creature bred for meat but designed for cuteness. That balance informs the rest of the film, as it veers between horror at animal exploitation (with a forced-breeding scene that’s as horrifying as anything else in movies this year) and good-natured charm at the creature and the efforts of a heroic ragtag band of activists at saving it. Intentionally, Okja itself is uncomfortably semi-sentient, bringing us to the uncanny valley of what’s dumb enough to eat even for confirmed carnivores. Tonal shifts are part of the Bong Joon-ho experience after all, and if his previous films have already been a bit challenging because of the way they go from one genre to another, Okja is a magnified instance of the same. The Anglo/Korean cast is wonderfully eclectic, with Ahn Seo-hyun in the lead role with Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Giancarlo Esposito and Jake Gyllenhaal being some of the best-known names recognizable to a western audience. Challenging, uncomfortable, surprisingly enjoyable at times and just as surprisingly disgusting at others, Okja is not the kind of film to watch on a lark. But it’s a good thing that Netflix can get behind such unconventional projects.
(Video On-Demand, July 2017) I really wanted to like Life more than I did. After all, while I’m not all that fond of yet another monster-in-space horror/SF movie, the idea of making such a film following the hyper-real example of Gravity (which Life really wants to emulate down to very similar opening tracking shots and South-Asian finale) is intriguing, and so is the cast, leading with the always-sympathetic Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal. I’m even open to downbeat finales, provided they make some kind of thematic and plotting sense. But from the first few moments, something is off with Life, and the problems just escalate from there. The issues start with a needlessly obscured “catch the satellite” sequence that barely makes physical sense, but then they get worse as a magical alien life form shows up with no other goal than to kill everyone in increasingly gruesome ways. The impossibly intelligent creature soon makes mincemeat out of the crew, helped along with an absurd succession of dumb character/screenwriting decisions that clearly show that the deck is stacked against a happy ending. The horror sequences are more stomach-churning than entertaining, and the downbeat conclusion depends on a flip of a coin. While it’s kind of daring to kill off your most charismatic character first, and to doom the entire human race by the end, it doesn’t really make for an entertaining movie. Life ends by leaving viewers with the impression of having brushed against something repulsive … which really doesn’t help repeat viewings. For all of the high-tech gloss that makes Life so intriguing, director Daniel Espinosa’s halfway competent execution doesn’t really mask the problems with the script. My tolerance for unhappy endings is growing smaller and smaller every year (and it was never really all that forgiving in the first place), so when an everybody-dies-horribly film like Life comes along, I find it ever easier to dismiss it almost completely.
(Video On-Demand, March 2017) Director Tom Ford’s second feature is often just as controlled as his previous A Single Man, but it doesn’t quite manage to fully exploit the material at its disposal. Amy Adams is her usually remarkable self as an art gallery manager absorbed by her ex-husband’s roman à clef—thanks to some clever cinematography and dark clothes, her head often floats alone on-screen, focusing our attention on a role with a complex inner component. Told non-linearly while hopping in-between a base reality and fiction, Nocturnal Animals is happy to remain enigmatic even when dealing with terrible events. The novel-in-a-film is about gruesome murder, vengeance and a man losing everything. But what I did not expect to find here is as good a movie portrayal as I’ve seen of the reader’s experience with a great book: the way we get hooked in lengthy reading sessions, the abrupt transition from book to real life, the way the fiction bleeds into reality… I’m not sure any movie has quite shown it like Nocturnal Animal. This, paradoxically, makes the rest of it weaker, especially when it becomes obvious that reality and fiction are meant to interact and reflect upon each other (what a great idea to have Isla Fisher play Amy Adams’ fictional counterpart): the conclusion seems to hold its punches, and seems limp in comparison to what precedes it. Otherwise, we do get great performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and a pleasantly gritty Michael Shannon as a doomed policeman. Add to that the terrific cinematography and Nocturnal Animals gets a marginal recommendation—with the caveat that it doesn’t all click as well as it should.
(On Cable TV, December 2016) This won’t matter to anyone else, but the last movie I watched in 2014 was an enigmatic drama featuring Jake Gylenhall and directed by a French-Canadian, and the last movie I watched in 2016 was also an enigmatic drama featuring Jake Gylenhall and directed by a French-Canadian. Demolition is far more audience-friendly than Enemy, though, even if much of the story takes place in the protagonist’s head as he acts out in strange ways. Everything starts when the protagonist’s wife is killed in a car crash. Our main character feels a curious mixture of remorse and lack of regret: He arguably contributed to the crash, but things weren’t all that happy between them. Now that his rich father-in-law is furious and his life is in shambles, our lead character flays for answers. He writes a letter to a vending machine company after a machine eats his money, picks up a demolition hobby (first with a professional crew, then freelancing on his own house), makes unlikely friends and lovers and looks at the world in a different way. As a portrait of a grieving man, Demolition is significantly more interesting than the usual, but even the surface distractions (all the way to a gaudy carrousel) can’t hide the sadness at the heart of the story. The quirky black humour does feel a lot like the current crop of independent comedies, but it helps the film stay more interesting than other similar films. Gyllenhaal is as good as ever in the lead role, ably supported by other capable actors in smaller roles. This being said, Demolition isn’t transcendent, and seems to avoid going to the end of its own train of thoughts: Even the titular demolition conceit seems to run out of steam at some point, muffled among other competing subplots. But even running at half-speed, Demolition works well and doesn’t waste our time. As a three-peat reunion between and Gyllenhaal and a French-Canadian director (this time, Jean-Marc Vallé rather than Denis Villeneuve), it keeps up the good quality of these collaborations.
(On Cable TV, June 2016) This may sound ungrateful, but I’d expect a disaster movie about climbing the Earth’s tallest mountain to be a bit more … impressive. It’s not as if Everest is entirely missing in thrills: After reading a lot about Himalayan mountain-climbing, it’s fascinating to see a big-budget production head over to Nepal (even if only for a small portion of the shoot) and show us how it’s done. The capable group of actors assembled for the film is impressive, starting with the ever-impressive Jason Clarke and Jake Gyllenhaal as duelling climbers/entrepreneurs. Part of the film’s middle-of-the-road impression may be due to its insistence on sticking to a true story, the disastrous 1996 Mount Everest disaster spectacularly chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Interestingly enough, Everest is not based on Into Thin Air, while Krakauer shows up as a non-heroic character. There’s a limit to the amount of drama (or, perhaps more accurately, audience-friendly dramatic structure) that can be generated from a film intent on sticking to facts, and Everest finds itself limited to the real story. Direction-wise, Baltasar Kormákur has fun with some set pieces, even though the story itself treads familiar ground. What’s often missing, though, is a sense of scale: For such a big mountain, Everest is too often glimpsed from too close and the film rarely delivers on the awe of the mountain-climbing experience. Regrettably, Everest’s strengths only highlight its limits: While it’s a decent travelogue, it should have been a more absorbing experience. I may, however, revisit this film in a few years to see if I’m being too picky.
(Netflix Streaming, November 2015) The concept of the anti-hero is retooled with vigour in Nightcrawler, thanks to a terrific collaboration between writer/director Dan Gilroy and another exceptional performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. Taking place in modern Los Angeles (now illuminated at night by bright-white LED streetlamps) where competing news stations are literally out for blood, Nightcrawler is first and foremost the character study of a modern sociopath, one whose ambition is fueled by personal-growth Internet sites, a complete lack of morals and a world that gleefully applauds the result of his efforts. Gyllenhaal is phenomenal in the lead hustler role, portraying a deeply wrong character with almost-complete detachment: the film’s best scene is a “simple” dinner date in which a human relationships is dissected to its most self-interested axioms. Otherwise, much of the film is spent in the streets of Los Angeles at night, chasing accidents and selling video footage to the highest bidder. It’s a nightmarish but well-executed film, Gilroy showing talent at his first directorial effort –and showcasing his wife Renee Russo in one of the best roles she’s had in years. There’s quite a bit of depth in the way Nightcrawler also engages with issues of degenerate capitalism, social voyeurism and media fearmongering. It’s quite a film, but also quite an experience in how it refuses to see things from outside its lead character’s perspective. Don’t be surprised if you want to shower after watching it.
(Netflix Streaming, April 2015) Consider me pleasantly surprised: I wasn’t expecting much from this romantic comedy, but Love & Other Drugs has more than enough bright moments to earn a marginal recommendation despite an unsatisfying conclusion. The two best things about the film, obviously, are the performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, both of whom manage to elevate potentially reprehensible characters into likable romantic leads. The third best asset of the film is the first half of co-writer/director Edward Zwick’s script, which manages to deliver a witty introduction to the world of pharmaceutical product selling, along with a mature love story that seemingly holds little back. Yes, this means plenty of nudity. But more importantly, it also means two protagonists who delight in making their coupling as difficult as can be, negging each other relentlessly and desperately clinging to an unrealistic ideal of non-attachment. The dialogue is biting, the love scenes have a bit of heat to them, Hathaway looks spectacular (on-par for Hollywood’s idea of terminally-ill young women) and Gyllenhaal plays up his motor-mouth hustler character in a way that’s actually charming rather than infuriating. But Love & Other Drugs goes awry somewhere past its midpoint, as it struggles with the realization that it has introduced a romance with no possible satisfactory conclusion. From sharp-tongued comedy, it becomes both a weepy drama about an incurable disease then a routine romantic film with an expected ending. The credits roll on happy characters, but we viewers suspect a much darker aftermath. The last-act blend of romantic idealism clashes with the grim advice received by the protagonists and the cynical spirit of its initial scenes. As much as I enjoyed the first half of the film, it does set up expectations that are impossible to fulfill. There may have been a better film lurking in the basic premise, one with a more biting denunciation of Big Pharma and fewer emotional dead-ends. In the meantime, you can always be riveted by the first half of the film, and let your attention wander during the rest.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) I approached Prisoners reluctantly. Sure, it got great reviews… but it also came along with the reputation of being a dark and unpleasant thriller. I kept putting it off, constantly reasoning that I wanted to see something lighter in my short free time. Well, now that I have finally sat down to watch Prisoners, can I acknowledge that I was wrong in delaying watching it? This has to be one of the finest films of 2013. Sure, it’s dark. Really dark, as stories about child abductions and psychopath criminals usually are. But it’s temporary darkness at worst: The film wraps up to a fine conclusion that strikes a perfect balance between hard-earned light and unforgiving consequences. There are a few unfortunate coincidences within the plot, but much of Prisoners has the satisfying heft of a good crime novel. (Remarkably enough, it’s an original screenplay.) Moral dilemmas abound, and the sense of barely-repressed darkness is constant. As a no-fun crime drama, it allows actors to shine: Hugh Jackman turns in one of his best performances as a grief-stricken family man taking justice in his own hands when the police won’t hold a suspected abductor while his daughter is missing. Meanwhile, Jake Gyllenhaal also has a career-best role as a driven investigator trying to make sense of a convoluted web of back-stories and shadowy criminals. Paul Dano is also remarkable as a punching-bag character. Still, French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve gets the credit for a film that manages a satisfying conclusion out of a bleaker-than-bleak film. (Significantly enough, the film either takes place at night, or during overcast/snowy days.) The film may not be fun, but it is strangely uplifting and shows what happens when viewers are trusted to handle more than the usual Hollywood pap.
(Video on Demand, February 2013) Writer/director David Ayer has basically worked his entire career so far in the “LAPD thriller” genre, but the surprise with End of Watch is how the film seems determined to re-invent the police drama, in presentation if not necessarily in content. Seen from the street-level perspective of two LAPD officers, End of Watch deliberately creates its cinema-vérité atmosphere through the use of enough handheld camera footage as so not to distract when the entire film turns out shot more conventionally. This appeal to realism is reinforced by actions that go against the grain of how movie policemen usually behave, along with dialogue that sounds improvised and a lack of detail regarding the big picture of the film’s plot. The episodic plotting gets ludicrously flashy at times (our heroes get involved with enough drug stashes, imperilled kids, human trafficking rings, car chases and shootouts to qualify for the evening news several times over) but the direction of the film keeps everything grounded. It helps that in-between the action sequences, End of Watch spends time a lot of time with its characters and so ends up focusing on their day-to-day reality. Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t initially convincing as a tough police officer, but he gets more credible as the film advances. Still, it’s Micahel Peña who steals the show in a typically compelling performance. By End of Watch’s conclusion, it becomes clear that this is (unlike much of Ayer’s work-to-date) a film that celebrates the work of ordinary policemen: there are no corrupt cops here, no half-gangbangers, no superheroes: just two guys with badges, trying to do their jobs and make the world safer for their kids.
(In theaters, April 2011) I wasn’t as fond of Duncan Jones’ Moon as a lot of people were, but I was really interested in seeing his follow-up effort, and Source Code does not disappoint. The theme of the deceived protagonist is still there, the setting is just as constrained and the scientific premises is just as wobbly (not to mention a nonsensical title), but Jones here has a bigger budget, a bigger concept, bigger stars and a faster pace. Ben Ripley’s disaster-movie premise script is ingenious, but it’s paired with other well-paced revelations and the interweaving of both plotlines is effectively achieved. Jake Gyllenhaal is hitting his stride as a heroic protagonist, with good supporting work from Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga and a halting Jeffrey Wright. Still, the real star here is writer/director Jones, who delivers a fast, clever and entertaining film with some depth and artful gloss. The ending manages to be elegiac and optimistic at once, and provides a surprising amount of thematic depth for what could have easily been a straight-up genre exercise. We don’t get quite enough SF movies like Source Code, but given the boost it will give to Jones’ career, chances are that we will get a few more.
(In theatres, May 2010) It’s hip to dismiss Hollywood summer blockbusters, but there’s nothing quite like the feel of a good well-made escapist fantasy. Forget about the video game origins of the film, or the loose historical allusions in the title: this first Prince of Persia movie works best as an action adventure fantasy, any kind of verisimilitude joyfully sacrificed on the altar of entertainment. Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer obviously aim to replicate the atmosphere of the first Pirates of the Caribbean, and while it’s not perfect, it works generally well at taking us from one action/effects set-piece to another. Jake Gyllenhaal makes for a credible action hero while Genna Arterton is almost impossibly sassy/cute in the film’s only noteworthy female role, but it’s Alfred Molina who ends up the film’s standout oddball character as a quasi-modern parody of a libertarian. Not that he’s the only charmingly anachronistic element in a plot that is based on a middle-eastern invasion motivated by false reports of weapons of mass destruction. But never mind the politics when the film mixes swashbuckling adventure, an Arabian fantasy setting and an intriguing fantasy plot device. You can see the end of the story coming from the film’s first twenty minutes (which is probably a good thing, given its reset-button nature), but it’s the telling that’s the charm here. Not that it’s a complete success like its piratical predecessor: Prince of Persia sometimes feel a bit too long, sorely misses more female characters, could have used another dialogue re-write, has no cultural legitimacy (See “Persia, Prince of”) and often feels driven by incredible contrivances. But, you know, I’m already looking forward to the sequel. After all, I’ve just seen Robin Hood: I’ve had my inoculation shot against excessive realism.